(Everyday Bravery, Day 5)
Lately I feel like every time my mind turns outwards, away from the joys and the responsibilities of life at home, it lands on race.
Sometimes it’s all I can think of.
The news, social media, encounters at church and school and the grocery store – they prompt this whirlwind of thought and memory and anxiety and love and (I hate to be dramatic, but) fear for the future of our society.
The thing that most gets under my skin about this preoccupation with race is that it should strike me now, when I’m living in the least diverse place I ever have. These days I look around at church and at school and in the grocery store, and the crowds are so white that I actually notice the few African Americans among them. I never used to notice, because I never used to run in such white crowds.
I never would have expected it, but being so surrounded by (my fellow) white people has made me feel untethered. Untethered from my past, from my previous viewpoint on the world, and, I fear, from reality.
I grew up in a pretty diverse community. (Or at least one that had a pretty decent mix of blacks and whites.) I always had black classmates. I always had black friends. I always respected and admired my black teachers and neighbors. I’ll probably guess wrong, but my best guess is that growing up, about 30-40% of the students at my schools were black.
Afterward, with the exception of the four years I spent at my small, Catholic, overwhelmingly-white liberal arts college, all the communities I lived in were at least as diverse as the one I grew up in.
All this is to say, I feel like I’m witnessing our society’s current unrest over racial issues from a strange place:
I am white. I am privileged. (Not trying to be PC here – just telling it like it is.) I am a descendent of slaveholders. I grew up in a southern-ish place where talk of race was routinely hushed with a “we don’t talk about that.” I married a Midwesterner who has absolutely no sense of sensitivity to such things. I live in a mostly-white, middle-class, semi-rural community.
Yet I was formed in communities that were far more black than most white, middle-class, semi-rural people experience. My husband and I both come from modest-to-poor backgrounds. (i.e. It is not natural to us to feel privileged.) And through the miracle of social media, I have maintained at least slight connections to people from all phases of my life. My black childhood friends and young adult friends and work friends are thrown right in there with my white mom friends (online and in person), many of whom seem to have never had many black people in their lives.
(So: untethered. I feel untethered.)
These days people seem to misunderstand one another and mistrust one another. We don’t want to talk about it. Or we do want to talk about it, but only with those who look and think like us. We want to pit people who side with the police against those who side with the black community, as though we can escape the full weight of our country’s legacy of racial inequality and discrimination by boiling it all down to one horribly divisive issue.
My mind swirls. It is a cacophony of thoughts. I have written on this issue for hours upon hours in the last three years. I have written thousands upon thousands of words. Yet none of it adequately captures my thinking.
I can’t get it right. So here’s me not trying to get it right. Here’s me starting somewhere – throwing out a few thoughts in order to start a conversation. If you’re a friend and you want to contact me privately, if you’re a reader and you want to comment here or on Facebook – or heck, if you’re a fellow blogger and you want to post back and forth on the subject – I’m game. I’ll talk. I’ll listen.
— One —
- I never used to see the point in encouraging diverse schools and workplaces and communities – but now I see that that’s because I was already living it. I took it for granted.
- These days I am grateful for the diversity in which I was raised. I am grateful to have some sense of what life and history have been like for people who look different from me. I am grateful that when I encounter young African American men, I see in them glimpses of my childhood friends, my former classmates, and (now) my friends’ precious sons.
— Two —
- It may sound hokey, but I’ve realized since moving to a less diverse area that to me, encountering black people can sometimes feel like home. I sit next to an older black woman at the store and we chat kids and discipline and recipes – and I feel the warmth of home.
- I had the same feeling – stronger, sadder – when Dylann Roof attacked the good people of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last year. In the photos of the dead, I saw my friends’ moms and grandmoms, my former teachers and colleagues. It was hard to bear.
— Three —
- I bear no responsibility for slavery. I bear no responsibility for Jim Crow laws. I cannot claim responsibility for things that happened before I was born. I feel like that is increasingly asked of me as a white person and I resent it.
- I can and do, however, mourn those things. I am ashamed of those injustices and the roles my ancestors played in them. I mourn the injustices that persist to this day. I think more white people should reflect on the past and its horrors and really let them sink in.
— Four —
- I think that the inequality, injustice, prejudice, and racism experienced by the black community today is greater than most whites can imagine – greater than I can imagine.
- Yet I think the main critiques bubbling up today will be ineffective in changing the situation. I think we need to find new, honest, humble ways to move forward.
— Five —
- “Institutional racism” is a difficult term. It comes across to me as something outside myself – this large, faceless, clunking thing that can take the blame for millions of individual people and their millions of individual interactions. I fear it will succeed in offending many while holding few to account.
— Six —
- I think the term “racist” itself is increasingly misused, to the detriment of those who would advance racial equality. Many who work towards racial justice attribute the term to whites wholesale, which is both unfair and unwise.
- Racism has an incredibly negative connotation to whites – it is a term that to us requires an element of hate. Equating one’s skin color with racism is as maddeningly unfair (and racist) as equating one’s skin color with crime. It will only turn people off, push people away, and feed angst and mistrust on issues of race.
- Calling all white people racist also minimizes the effect of calling particular white people racist. There are plenty of people out there who truly do harbor hate towards those who look different from them. There are white people who avoid or discriminate against or even physically harm people because they are black. Ascribing “racist” to all white people lets those individuals off the hook. It makes them out to be racist because they’re white, not because they’re hateful.
I really don’t know what else to do here. (Hence the style of this post.)
I see criticisms that white people shouldn’t just smile silently and move along – that we should engage. But what am I supposed to do? Should I have brought up Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and Dallas with my black obgyn at my annual check-up a couple of months ago? Should I have stopped those guests at my cousin’s wedding to exchange more than pleasantries?
How do we make room for meaningful dialogue on race when we don’t find ourselves in the company of people who don’t look like us?
Next time I see a black person in the grocery store, should I greet him or her with an “I see that you’re black. Would you like to talk about race with me?” Of course not. I’m never going to do that. I will, however, smile warmly. And if the circumstances seem right (i.e. my children aren’t about to go berserk) I’ll strike up a friendly, if meaningless conversation.
When I find myself sitting next to another older black woman at the store, I’ll have another of those chats about kids and discipline and recipes — or whatever topics we happen to land on. I’ll be personable. I’ll be human.
If I get the opportunities, I’ll talk about more serious things too. I am willing to talk with and pray with — and heck, cook or clean or do some other kind of work alongside — people who don’t look like me.
I will try to write more on this topic.
I’ll try. I’ll try to talk, listen, pray, work, write – all to a better, more just end.
And this may be silly, but I’m going to throw a little hashtag up here to identify myself as someone who’s willing to talk and listen on issues of race. If you’re willing to do the same, maybe use this too and meet me out there on social media.
This post is the fifth in a series called Everyday Bravery: A Write 31 Days Challenge. Every day this month I’m publishing a blog post on Everyday bravery – not the heroic kind, not the kind that involves running into a burning building or overcoming some incredible hardship. Rather, the kinds of bravery that you and I can undertake in our real, regular lives. To see the full list of posts in the series, please check out its introduction.
Interested in coming along with me as I share stories about my family and chew on the topics of motherhood, politics, and society? Like These Walls on Facebook or follow the blog via email. (Click the link on the sidebar to the right.) You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram and you can find me at my politics blog at the Catholic Review, called The Space Between.